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Making Torah study ‘a sign upon your hand’
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Making Torah study ‘a sign upon your hand’

Rabbi’s manicures turn painted nails into mini-midrash

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

I really hate getting manicures. So, as I planned my son’s bar mitzva earlier in November, I dreaded the inevitable manicure a day or two before the event.

Then I found Rabbi Yael Buechler.

Buechler is coordinator of student life for the middle school at Solomon Schechter School of Westchester in Hartsdale, NY. While still a rabbinical student, she served as program coordinator of Congregation Beth El in South Orange, where my son would become a bar mitzva.

Buechler has been polishing her nails on a weekly basis since middle school. She ran her own nail business while an undergraduate at Brandeis University — where she had a fingernail epiphany.

“It dawned on me how each manicured fingernail could serve as a canvas for Jewish creativity,” she said. “I began to paint each week’s manicure according to the Torah portion or holiday of that week. I depicted the splitting of the Red Sea on my nails when that passage from Exodus was read from the Torah, and for Passover, I portrayed each of the 10 plagues.”

Now she has fused her interest in nail couture with her training in Jewish textual interpretation to create “Midrash Manicures” for students and “clients” like me.

“Midrash” refers to the literature of creative rabbinic interpretation.

Buechler sees a parallel between her manicures and the mitzva of tefillin. “Midrash Manicures enable the mitzva of Torah study to be ‘a sign upon your hand,’” she said, quoting Deuteronomy 6:8, which describes the phylacteries.

When I found her, I wasn’t thinking about tefillin or signs upon my hand. I was thinking, “Goodbye, nail salon. Hello, creative life-cycle ritual.”

On the Thursday night before the Big Shabbat, I laid out a spread and gathered seven women — including Beth El’s Rabbi Francine Roston — and their daughters at my house.

We welcomed Buechler, who joined us around the table.

With hors d’oeuvres and wine in hand (lemonade for the girls), we studied the parsha under Buechler’s direction. We reviewed the highlights of the jam-packed portion, from Abraham welcoming angelic guests, to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, to the binding of Isaac. Buechler focused on the section in which God tells Sarah she will have a child and Sarah laughs at the notion of a woman of her advanced age giving birth.

Buechler asked, “As you think about this parsha, what symbols come to mind?”

People threw out ideas like a baby rattle, the desert sun, a tent, an angel, and LOL, the electronic acronym for “laughing out loud.” Buechler drew each onto sketches of nails.

One by one, we headed to the manicure table, where she expertly polished our nails, adding designs reflecting the parsha.

After some hesitation about participating at all, Roston chose “Hineni” — literally “Here I am,” Abraham’s response when God calls him — one Hebrew letter on each nail and a shofar on each thumb. The girls were partial to LOL; many chose stars representing God’s prediction that Abraham’s descendants would be as numerous as the stars, or hearts symbolizing the love between Abraham and Sarah. I chose an image of Sarah laughing, the desert sun, a tent, the angels, fire for the destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah, a shofar, a heart, and three symbols for the bar mitzva — Torah, tallit, and a bear, representing my son’s middle name.

A new low?

Not everyone takes kindly to Midrash Manicures. Writing in the Forward, Israeli writer Elana Sztokman called them “a new low in girls’ Jewish education” — Buechler offers an elective course at the Westchester Schechter — and “a serious regression into some of the most damaging ideas about how girls learn.”

I’m not so sure that connecting with girls where they are and slipping in some Torah study is such a sin. In fact, I consider these girls lucky to have a role model who can show them how to infuse Torah into everything they do. It’s another portal to Jewish learning, not so different from informal education at Jewish camps.

Moreover, Buechler’s endeavor signifies an important shift. The whole idea of a woman rabbi creating Torah manicures could only have happened now, decades after the first women were ordained. “The first generation felt they had to be just like men,” said Roston. “They wore dark suits and felt unable to bring their feminine side into the rabbinate. The second generation could bring their womanhood, as long they didn’t have it as the focus and they didn’t scare congregants away with feminism.”

Buechler, 26, became a rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary a generation after the first women were ordained there. She did not have to fight to become a rabbi and cannot be considered a pioneer. But she has something else — the ability to bring her whole self into the rabbinate. She does not have to choose between being feminine and being serious. She doesn’t have to mimic a man to be a rabbi. Because of the women who paved the way for her, she is now free to do midrash with her manicure without contradiction. That marks progression, though complicated and layered — not regression.

In July, with her rabbinic degree and a master’s degree in midrash in hand, she launched a website, www.midrashmanicures.com. It includes her commentaries on the weekly portion, examples of her work, and information about the workshops she runs for schools, synagogues, and JCCs.

“I was hoping that this educational website would serve as a launching pad for sparkling and innovative religious expression,” she said.

For me, Midrash Manicures offers an opportunity to add some depth and content to a vacuous ritual, and a chance for women to learn Torah together and with our daughters.

I can’t think of a better way to prepare for a bar or bat mitzva.

PS: In case you were wondering, yes, my son read Torah and haftara beautifully, his d’var Torah was insightful and funny, and he looked handsome and grown-up in his suit. Of course I shepped plenty of naches; I am, after all, a Jewish mother.

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